'I'll Be Gone In The Dark' And The Psychological Ramifications Of A True Crime Obsession

Director Elizabeth Wolff examines late author Michelle McNamara, who died before she could finish an investigation into the identity of the Golden State Killer.

In a passage from “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark,” true crime author Michelle McNamara comes out with it: She’s fixated on tragedy.

“Violent men unknown to me have occupied my mind all my adult life — long before 2007, when I first learned of the offender I would eventually dub the Golden State Killer,” McNamara writes in the 2018 book, released posthumously following her death in April 2016.

“The part of the brain reserved for sports statistics or dessert recipes or Shakespeare quotes is, for me, a gallery of harrowing aftermaths: a boy’s BMX bike, its wheels still spinning, abandoned in a ditch along a country road; a tuft of microscopic green fibers collected from the small of a dead girl’s back,” she continues. “To say I’d like to stop dwelling is beside the point. Sure, I’d love to clear the rot. I’m envious, for example, of people obsessed with the Civil War, which brims with details but is contained. In my case, the monsters recede but never vanish. They are long dead and being born as I write.”

In the six-part HBO docuseries of the same name ― which culminates on Sunday ― the idea that monstrous individuals continue to affect the lives of not only their victims, but a seemingly endless ecosystem around them, rings heartbreakingly true. Viewers learn about the Golden State Killer, a man now known to be Joseph James D’Angelo, who committed upward of 50 sexual assaults and at least 10 murders in California in the 1970s and 1980s. They also dig into McNamara’s obsession with the case and how it ultimately affected her mental state.

While in the process of finishing her book, McNamara’s husband, comedian Patton Oswalt, found her dead in their Los Angeles bedroom. Her death was attributed to a mix of prescription drugs, including Adderall, fentanyl and Xanax.

The 46-year-old, who was also discovered to have an undiagnosed heart condition, was the youngest of six siblings and the mother of a 5-year-old daughter, Alice. In “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark,” some, including Oswalt, consider whether McNamara’s desire to identify the Golden State Killer led to her accidental overdose.

“Michelle’s obsession gave us an opportunity to explore our cultural fascination with true crime,” said Elizabeth Wolff, the producer and co-director of the series who worked alongside filmmakers Liz Garbus, Myles Kane and Josh Koury. “This was a story within a story about a woman who struggled to be a writer and express herself and discovered a fascination with unsolved crimes, becoming obsessed with one in particular. So, whether it strays from the [true crime] genre or not, we sort of knew that it was always going to be unique.”

Below, Wolff talks about diving into McNamara’s life, facing harrowing subject matter and understanding darkness truly invades those who step into it.

Cinematographer Thorsten Thielow and director Elizabeth Wolff working on "I'll Be Gone In The Dark."
Cinematographer Thorsten Thielow and director Elizabeth Wolff working on "I'll Be Gone In The Dark."
Keri Oberly / Courtesy HBO

What was it like to collaborate with three other directors on this project? And how did you go about putting your own personal stamp on the series?

From the beginning, Liz [Garbus] and I had a sense of where the major plot points would fall, but it wasn’t really until we went and filmed the material and got it in the edit that the documentary was fully written. In addition to four directors, we had an incredible producer Kate Barry and three outstanding editors [Erin Barnett, Jawad Metni and Alyse Ardell Spiegel] who each took charge of a couple of different episodes. It was a lot of personalities, but the great thing about documentaries is that it is collaborative. It’s not one woman alone in a room writing a book and what that isolation and solitude can do to you. It was constantly comparing our own feelings about the material with each other. So, pairing all of our strengths really filled out and created this whole big project that I don’t think would have been the same if any one of us did it alone.

Josh and Myles really have an incredibly visual eye. They made a great film called “Voyeur” where one of the challenges was a lot of coverage and how do you tell a complicated story with with visual motif? Liz, I mean, her background [“The Farm: Angola, USA,” “A Dangerous Son,” “What Happened, Miss Simone?”] speaks for itself. It had been a longtime goal of mine to work with her. She’s one of the more prolific female documentarians working today. And as a first-time director on this project, it was a dream to work with her and she provided very important boundaries, both ethically and visually. She has a mastery of telling complicated, humanistic, empathetic stories.

What a project to work on as a first-time director. What did you learn from directing a series like this, and what do you hope to take from it and use in your work moving forward?

That’s such a good and big question. I learned the importance of collaboration. I learned the importance of self-care. These were two things that, in many ways, delving into Michelle’s life, we learned that she didn’t really have much of. It was always something that I was aware of: how grateful I was to be able to go to work every day and work with a team of people that could get me out of my own head. By working together, we would make progress.

And I hope that’s what would viewers take away from their viewing experience, which is that if you don’t talk about and face the dark things in your life, they will consume you. It is hard work, but it has to get done.

The thing with audiences these days is when they see anything true crime-related, they go into it thinking one thing. What I loved about this docuseries is viewers who were not aware of Michelle or her book were taken off guard. They are grabbed by Michelle’s story rather than just trying to solve or figure out every in and out of the Golden State Killer’s case.

If you feel that way, then I think we did our job well. From the beginning, we knew we wanted to draw audiences in with the allure and the intrigue of this unsolved ― or unsolved when Michelle was working on it ― crime. But over the course of [the series], there’s this weave of Michelle’s story and the Golden State Killer’s story. In the edit, something we would always feel was, “Wow, the darkness of this Golden State Killer story is becoming so much. I need a bit of a reprieve.” And we realized that in the course of telling the story, the roles of the Golden State Killer story and the Michelle’s story would reverse. As you got more sucked into Michelle’s inner world and her inner struggles, she would become the dark story that you would need a break from. The roles flipped.

When you mention the weaving these stories, I think about your use of the “Creature from the Black Lagoon” footage, which is a thread throughout the episodes. What did that mean for you all in terms of the theme or the thesis? As a viewer, I saw it as a way to illustrate that darkness is always bubbling up under the surface.

We were inspired by a line or two in Michelle’s book about “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” She references it as being something that Patton and her bonded over early on, but she always threaded the book with references to how the hunter feels like the hunted. And as we were dissecting it, [we saw] this imagery of dark and light and above water and underwater was something we realized was really braided throughout the stories.

Michelle McNamara and her husband, Patton Oswalt.
Michelle McNamara and her husband, Patton Oswalt.
Courtesy of HBO

There was beauty in having actor Amy Ryan speak Michelle’s words and narrate her story, as well as the crimes of the Golden State Killer. Did you always know you wanted Michelle to be the “narrator”?

We had hundreds of hours of [tape] of Michelle in her own voice, [but] we knew we were going to need to have literary Michelle. You don’t really hire a voiceover artist until you’re basically locked, so for the two years we were working on it, I scratch tracked Michelle’s voice. Every time an editor was working on a scene and we needed to use literary Michelle, we would figure out the lines of her emails or her book or rough drafts and things that we found on her computer and put together a Michelle VO scratch track script and I would go into a closet in the production office and record it. With Michelle’s voice as mine, it became life imitating art in so many ways. It was very hard to hear my own voice while also creating the material. [Laughs] I needed some distance.

When it was time to actually get Amy to voice Michelle, we were still finishing the edit and the [coronavirus] pandemic hit. We set up these remote voice recording sessions and had a voiceover specialist basically send equipment to Amy’s house and then a technician came, put on a mask and set everything up. We would beam in ― Liz from her house, me from my house, Amy from hers ― and we would record and see each other via Skype. I’m so grateful for Amy’s flexibility and willingness to go on that journey with us.

I’m curious how you felt reading Michelle’s words and living with them for this yearslong process. She was a wife and mother, trying to have a writing career and be successful, all while balancing her obsession with this case. Each of those pressures mixed together can ― and did, it seems ― bring her into a dark place.

Judith Warner’s “Perfect Madness” was required reading on our production. It was a book that Liz read many years ago when it came out and recommended. One of the things that was very important to us was to recognize that it wasn’t any one thing, you know? It wasn’t necessarily just Michelle’s obsession with the Golden State Killer, but that there is a culture in America that demands so much of mothers. They are pulled in ever-competing directions and the demands and expectations are so high to do everything, and do everything superlatively. One of Judith Warner’s conclusions is that there’s so much being thrown at you that the way you’re dealing with it is avoidance and short-term fixes, like self-medication or escapism through television like true crime or avoiding your family issues or the stresses of family by diving into work.

As [our show] builds toward the end of Episode 4, Patton says, you know, Michelle was a mom and she was a friend, but she was trying to solve this case and she was trying to write this book and it really pulls you under. How can she do it all? The reality is, she can’t.

“The series had become a meditation on the ripple effects and consequences of trauma.”

- Elizabeth Wolff

That feeling comes across, for sure, as does the theme of grief. The victims’ grief, Michelle’s grief over her own mother or time spent away from her daughter, Patton’s grief after Michelle dies...

It’s interesting you use the word grief because I remember watching all the episodes in the rough cuts and coming away from it and our conversation as a production really feeling like the series had become a meditation on the ripple effects and consequences of trauma. And I think this idea of of grief is very similar to that. [Golden State Killer victim] Gay Hardwick in Episode 4 talks about how learning to live with this trauma is like the loss of a loved one: It doesn’t go away. Hopefully one day it gets better and you start to move forward and live a fully functioning life.

The survivors were special role models for us in making this series. Their resilience, but also their willingness to speak about their own process of learning to get through grief and live with the trauma. I look at the series and see it as sort of cumulative. Even in Episode 6, when you spend time with D’Angelo’s family members, you start to see a new kind of trauma ― a trauma that perhaps they haven’t quite yet dealt with.

We’re all dealing with shit, right? We’re all dealing with hard stuff. And when you interact with somebody or when you pass them on the street, you have no idea the hard stuff they’re going through. If there’s any lesson in this series, it’s everyone is going through their own stuff ― they’re either going through it or they’re avoiding it. I mean, it is so powerful how well-spoken Patton was publicly about his grief and how if you don’t let it out in the light, it will fortify itself in you. It’s quite tragic that this was a lesson that perhaps Michelle needed to learn and, unfortunately, Patton had to learn it through grappling with her death.

Grief stays with you, sort of like the creature under the surface we mentioned. Monsters like D’Angelo affect people’s lives long after they’ve committed crimes. You see that throughout every frame of the series.

Episode 5′s title is “Monsters Recede But Never Vanish,” which is a line in Michelle’s book. It’s such a beautiful line. Think about the survivors and the victims’ family members, and their family members and their friends and their neighbors and the law enforcement and law enforcement families and the people who covered it in the media and their families. You recognize how damaging bad behavior is and how it has such a ripple effect on the world.

Melanie [Barbeau], our citizen sleuth who worked very closely with Michelle, expresses what I think a lot of people express, which is how does somebody become bad? What happens in their life? A person must have been affected by trauma and instead of dealing with it, turned into this bad actor and brought trauma on other people. It really does seem endless sometimes.

“I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” is available on HBO platforms. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.